If you have not read the first three parts of “Authenticity Under Threat” (which I recommend you do) they can be located here:
Part 1: “Authenticity Under Threat: an Existential Response”
Part2: “Authenticity Under Threat: Alienation or Being Lost in Mass Society”
Part 3: “Authenticity Under Threat: Mysterious Relationship”
As we have seen so far, the moral and cosmic significance of our authentic identity should be breaking through into our awareness. Existentialism has this “bringing to awareness” character that is common to mystical traditions of all the ancient religions. Being authentically individual does not mean conforming to public acceptance, i.e. an acceptance as determined by mass society, nor should it be the happy employment of our tastes that affect no one and nothing but our own pleasure. Organized religion, historically, held these two extremes together in tension, but no longer seems able to. Existentialism as a movement, and our existential intuitions, in particular, provide much guidance in discerning how to house authentic individuals. So we now must seriously examine and qualify the current concept of “religion”.
If in practice the function of organized religion turns out to be nothing more than to house justification, and canonize the routines of mass society; if organized religion abdicates its mission to disturb individuals in the depths of their consciences, and seeks instead simply to “make converts” that will smilingly adjust to the status quo, then it deserves the most serious and uncompromising criticism. Such criticism is not disloyal. On the contrary, fidelity to our authentic identities and to God demands it. One of the most important aspects of our current biblical-existentialist theology is precisely the prophetic consciousness of a duty to question the claims of any religious practice that collaborates with the “process of leveling” (Kierkegaard) and alienation.
This means that such theology will manifest a definite social concern and will, in the light of the Bible, identify and reject anything that compromises the standards of justice and mercy demanded by the word of God. It will identify these precisely by the presence of authentic respect and love for the human person. Thus, for instance, any claim that this or that policy or strategy deserves a “Christian” sanction (like abortion, gun control or gun rights, or equity, diversity, and inclusion) and the blessing of the church must be examined in the light of the principles we have seen. If in actual fact it amounts to the support of the abstract organization, granting or blessing a destructive power to coerce the individual conscience, it is to be rejected as fraudulent, as incompatible with our real identities in our relationships to God, to others, and to the non-human world; it is disobedience to the Gospel commandment of love. In one word, the church must not implicitly betray individuals into the power of the irresponsible and anonymous “mass society.” If the church does so, it will destroy itself by destroying freedom and authentic human community.
We must certainly recognize the danger of individualism, but we must also be fully aware of where this danger really lies.
Mass society is in fact more individualistic than the personalist community envisaged by the Gospels, the koinonia (fellowship) of intersubjective love among persons, which ought to be the church. Mass society is individualistic in the sense that it isolates each individual subject from her immediate neighbor, reducing her to situations of impersonal, i.e. formal and abstract, relationships with other objectified individuals. In dissolving the more intimate and personal bonds of life in the family and of the small sub-group (the farm, the shop of the artisan, the village, the town, the small business), mass society segregates the individual from the concrete and human “other” and leaves her alone and unaided in the presence of the faceless, i.e. the collective void, the mass society. Thus, as was said above, a mass person finds herself related not to flesh-and-blood human beings with the same freedom, responsibility, and conflicts as herself, but with idealized typological images: the Führer, the president, the sports star, the teen singer, the astronaut.
Under the dictates of mass society, her individuality is indeed individual, but it is neither unique (which requires recognition) nor important (which requires companionship). By systemically confining the individual within the limits of her own individual nonentity, mass society completely absorbs the individual into the mass. The function of the church ought to mitigate this process, not sanction it. By sedating the anguish of the alienated mind by unthinkingly endorsing non-Biblical concepts of social mobility, shopping therapy, or gratuitous consumption, the church has forsaken the individual. The church’s role is precisely the opposite: to strengthen the individual person against the one great temptation to surrender, to abdicate her personality, to fall and disappear into the void. “Man,” says Heidegger, “wants to surrender to the world. He tempts himself. He flees from himself and desires to fall into the world. In his everyday talking and curiosity, he prepares for himself a permanent temptation to fallenness.” Beyond the existential lingo in this quote, there exists a New Testament message.
The church will have failed in its greatest task if it does nothing to counter the fallenness except call people to subscribe to a few intellectual formulas and dogmas and then go their way with the mass.
While it is popularly supposed that “existentialism” has no other function than to allow one to do as she pleases, leaving her at the mercy of subjective fantasy and passion, removing her from the protective surveillance of social care and pastoral concern, we see that in fact, the shoe is on the other foot. Existential theology uncovers the deceptive social “responsibility” which pushes one to flee from her true self and take cover in the neutral, fallen world of alienation. This is especially true in the West, where the liberal capitalist culture is considered to neutrally and formally house the individual in her uniqueness no matter which ends she pursues. Liberal culture is anything but neutral; it is mass society relentlessly practiced. The true rebellion against God today is not merely that of the defiant individual of momentous choices, but much rather that of the massive and abstract collectivity in which human beings in the neuter, das Mann, the individual in the anonymous mass, becomes serenely convinced of her inviolable security as master of her own destiny and of his world. Such is the deception of so-called “human rights”. In finding her place in the modern world, the church must take care not to embrace or even canonize the hubris of technological society.
Where some forms of existentialism fail is in their inability to get beyond the individual’s discovery and affirmation of herself standing outside of and apart from the neutral mass, and obliged to defend herself with all her power against exploitation or invasion by others. It is evident in Nietzsche’s destination in the will to power. But it is particularly true in the early Sartre, for whom “L’enfer c’est les autres.” Neither his doctrinaire political positions nor his “cool” relationship with Simone de Beauvoir can do anything to modify this judgment of Sartrian existentialism as closed to dialogue and genuine communion.
With Camus, the problem is much more subtle and profound. One feels that few men in our time, Christian or not, were at once more soberly aware of the limitation of the human individual in mass society and more open, in compassion and understanding, to her plight. The Plague is a novel of crisis and alienation in which a few men manage to prove themselves authentic persons by openness and availability in a mass of thoughtless, stupefied human beings. Here, incidentally, the church is examined and found somewhat wanting in the person of a Jesuit priest who, in spite of a certain degree of heroism and self-sacrifice, remains insulated from human realities and from other men by the “official answers” with which he has already solved all problems in advance.
An existential theology is not one that claims to know all the answers in advance. It is concerned not with answers or with statements (“what,” “how”), but with man’s authentic existence (who). This depends on his capacity for dialogue with his fellow man, his ability to respond to the need of another, to waive his own anterior rights and claims in order to meet the other on common ground. In a word, the capacity to dialogue depends on freedom and on love. Hence, it is by no means concerned (as Sartre appears to be) merely with the cool assertion of one’s privacy. However, in existential theology, more is at stake than openness to others. One cannot be genuinely open to others unless she first admits her capacity to hear and obey the word of God, to bear and to understand the inevitable call to authenticity is heard in the depths of the conscience, existential theology emphasizes the formation of conscience. It seeks at all costs to defend the personal conscience against distortion by the all-pervading influence of collective illusion. It is all too easy for conscience to be twisted out of shape by merely attending to the claims of worldly care. The purely private world and one’s own liberty can be included as “worldly.”
Existential theology focuses on grace and on love, rather than on nature and on the law. Existential theology tends to view grace as not so supernatural, and instead restores to us the capacity for authentic personal freedom, and the power to love in a “new creation.” Far from being a further development in liberal and rationalistic dilution of the Gospel message, existential theology, because of its Biblical content, strongly emphasizes the obedience of faith and the surrender of the free person to Christ. Far from being a justification of disobedience, existential theology insists that it is only in the obedience of faith that we truly discover our authentic existence, our true selves. Though Heidegger is never explicitly Christian, this element of openness to grace, this capacity for obedience, is implicit in his philosophy, of which John Macquarrie has said: “Although Heidegger does not acknowledge it, his understanding of man brings us to the place where either the divine grace must intervene or all thought of an authentic existence must be given up entirely.”
Existential theology is concerned with the individual in her world and in her time. The word of God, the dialogue of an individual and God, is not confined to a meditation on the Bible written two thousand years ago. In the light of Biblical revelation, the Christian feels challenged, summoned, and addressed by God here and now in the events of our own confused and sometimes alarming history. The Christian existentialist knows precisely that she cannot evade the present and fly from it into a safe and static past, preserved for her in a realm of ideal essences or dogmatic truths, to which she can withdraw in silent recollection. Her recollection will be of no use to her if it merely serves him as a pretext for not being open to her sister here and now. The existential insistence on grace as an event, as an ever-renewed encounter with God and one’s fellow person now, in the present reality, in dynamic acceptance and availability, disturbs the idealistic and static outlook which treats grace as a “thing,” a “commodity,” to which one gains access by virtue of a spiritual secret, a ritual formula, or a technique of meditation.
Whatever one may say about it, Christian existentialism is not gnostic. It does not regard grace as a “supply” of light and fuel for the spiritual mansion in which one dwells in complacent isolation. It sees grace as an eschatological encounter and response, an opening of the heart to God, a reply of the Spirit within us to God our Father (Romans 8:15-16), in obedience of faith, in humility and openness to all persons. Grace exists in the relationship of a child and in dialogue, from which obstacles and limitations, whether of law, nature, sin, selfishness, fear, or even death, have all been taken away by the death and resurrection of Christ. Grace is perfect and total reconciliation, in Christ, with one’s true self, one’s neighbor, and with God.
The church now faces the question is whether we today offer Christ to the world as a liberating person or an agent of restriction. To show Christ as a liberating agent then we must first live in that freedom ourselves; we must have conquered our primal fears; we must first have entered into that I-Thou relationship in prayer and communion. This is the level at which modern theology has its greatest significance spiritually. Its insights draw us powerfully to a relationship with the eternal Thou. This is important to remember because a superficial understanding of modern theology seems to end in restless activism, itself an illusion and an evasion.
Rudolf Bultmann has done much to bring out the Christian implications that he found to be latent in the existentialist philosophy of Heidegger, and Macquarrie says of him: “The whole aim of Bultmann’s theology, including his views on demythologizing, is to spotlight the essential kerygma [the proclamation of salvation through Jesus Christ – Klassen addition] of the New Testament for men and women of our time and to bring it before them as the one relevant possibility that is still open for a bewildered world.”
Hence, though the existentialism of Heidegger may seem to end up with stoic heroism in the presence of unavoidable death, it has been taken much further. Bultmann and others have convincingly restructured the theology of Christian and Gospel hope in the categories of existentialist freedom. Although there are divergences in dogma, from the point of view of freedom and grace of lived experience, Bultmann’s insights have their value for Catholics and Protestants alike.
Far from being a negative cult of life-denying despair, existential theology challenges the sterility and the inner hopelessness, the deceptive optimism and the thorough despair which masks itself in the secular and social science illusion. For the fallen world there can be no genuine future: only death. But for Christian freedom, there is an authentic beginning. In fact, the existentialist’s freedom would be worth nothing if it were not constituted by openness to new beginnings – a future liberated from the inevitability of life in a depersonalized mass, free from the care and concern with mere “objects,” free at last even from death.
However, existential theology informs the move further and further from the characteristic subjectivity of what I have called “rugged individualism.” A theologically existentialist informed authenticity aims to achieve a genuine relatedness to and full participation in the world of nature and, above all, the human world. Where certain early existentialists regarded “the other” with suspicion as a hostile force, and even tended to consider all communal life as a threat to individual integrity, the existential theologians look rather for a transformation of communal life by Christian freedom and agape love. This implies a willingness to renounce the suspiciousness characteristic of secular, liberal democracies, to be open to human individuals and to her world, to freely participate in all the most cogent concerns of the world, but with a freedom of spirit which is immune to the forces of alienation. This, it must be admitted, demands a certain maturity! But maturity cannot be acquired in withdrawal and subjective isolation, in fear and in suspicion. Maturity is the nurtured capacity for a free and authentic response. Once again, this demands something more than psychological adjustment. It calls for divine grace, and it requires individuals who invest in church-like communities where significant others invest in individuals, and individuals invest in significant others. We must be receivers and bearers of grace. And our openness to grace is proportionate to our sense of our need for it, i.e. our awareness of the reality of the crisis we are in.
The most serious consideration which the existential theologian offers is a sober and sincere diagnosis of our trouble, with the total frankness with which she faces the basic Christian problems of death, sin, the wrath of God, grace, faith, freedom, and love. Where she is still admittedly weak is perhaps in her sense of Christian communion and of the church. But let us not forget that in her sensitivity to the danger of an alienated and unfaithful church organization that conceals the corruption of its leaders, the existentialist has done us a service, and warned us against the ever-present peril of institutional complacency – whether that be Catholic or Southern Baptist. There is no greater danger than this for the church in the modern world, and we are daily reminded of the fact when we see how easily the faithful, even some of the hierarchy, yield to the temptation to identify the church with the status quo, the mass social establishment, and to submerge the Christian conscience in the complex and dubious cares of an existence that is inauthentic because it is sociological rather than Christian.